By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall January 8, 2008 at 6:11AM
With competing feelings bouncing around in my head, the moments that shaped my 2007...
I loved 2007 for a variety of reasons; I got married, the film festival continues to grow by leaps and bounds and I finally got to see Paris (and fell in love with the city). On a personal level, it was a great year. Maybe my optimism made an impact, but my time seeing, thinking and writing about movies felt completely sympathetic with my own experiences; Lots to enjoy, plenty to be excited about.
But it was the world outside of the shelter of the movie theater that was so troubling; Politics continued to haunt me, and despite some powerful movies about the ongoing military occupation of Iraq, the crisis in Darfur, U.S. torture policy, the abuses of the U.S. Health Care industry, no single film could possibly encapsulate the overwhelming sense of deep regret that hung like a cloud above American public life this year. Taken collectively, the response of the cinema to the sour, divisive times in which we live seemed incoherent, wavering between shrieking generalization and stories so deeply committed to the facts, their scope and impact remained fixed like a single beam of light against a sea of bullshit. Most upsetting to me is that, somehow, fiction appears to have been neutered; Narrative films in particular proved to be absolutely flaccid in their attempts to depict the outrageous disconnect between day-to-day American life and the nightmare of our nation’s global responsibility. Something has silenced us, and art seemed incapable of encapsulating the depth and breadth of our schizophrenic days; Who will give voice to this deep need?
In my experience, 2007 was a year when the movies provided a one-sided escapism, validating the changes in my life as being connected to a larger world while simultaneously distancing me from the larger realities of public life. I am not so sure that is a good thing at all; I have always imagined the movie theater as a public space where people gather to collectively engage in new stories and ideas about the world. That said, the pleasures of escapism are legion; More than ever, it felt good to have the weight of the world taken off my shoulders by stories that touched upon a wide variety of human experience. At the same time, it wasn’t difficult to remember that, as the house lights came up and the crowds spilled out into the streets, scattering in a million different directions at once, we were all headed back to the specter of real life, the place where our responsibilities as citizens cannot justly be ignored.
With these competing feelings bouncing around in my head, the moments that shaped my 2007…
10. The Landlord and The French Connection at Film Forum and Straight Time at The Brooklyn Academy Of Music
Sometimes, a trip to the movies is as much about the company you keep as it is the stories on the screen; This year, no movie-going friend was as engaging and fun as Ry Russo-Young, who met up with me a few times for some late-afternoon screenings at Film Forum. Ry's passion for the stories and cinematic representations of 1970's New York really made an impression on me. Always so enthusiastic, looking for things to love in a movie instead of things to criticize, Ry was 2007's kindred spirit at the movie theater; An artist who thinks like a programmer, a person so passionate and alive with the possibility of cinema, you couldn't help but want to see movies with her. This is such a rare gift, to find a friend that sees the movies like you do, it was a real treat to spend some time with her. The same goes for my friends Paul and Jessica, good friends who treated the Mrs. and me to a screening of Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time at BAM. It was a great movie, but more importantly, it was nice to spend time with friends and simply enjoy the conversation over a post-screening meal. Too often, going to the movies becomes such an introspective experience, especially when you see as many as I do. These evenings with friends stand out as being a memorable way to engage in community and the love of movies. I look forward to many more nights like these in 2008.
9. Munyurangabo at The Toronto Film Festival
After a week of stomping past the crush of press and industry delegates that flooded so many of the industry screenings at Toronto, I have to admit that I took real pleasure walking into Lee Issac Chung's Munyurangabo amidst a sea of unconscionably empty seats. At the same time, it was a real disgrace; One of the best movies I saw in 2007, Munyurangabo was a devastatingly powerful story of hope and redemption, and I truly believe it is a towering achievement for American independent cinema. Where was everybody? It seems almost unbelievable that a movie like this could be made, let alone be this good, but the state of the business being what it is, I probably shouldn't be surprised that the press screening was almost empty. The word on the street is that the film is looking for distribution and may show up at a few more festivals this year; I'm hopeful that Sarasota will end up on the schedule. In the meantime, if Munyurangabo ends up at a theater near you, do whatever you have to do to go see it. This was the one movie that changed my year and filled me with a renewed faith in American independent film.
8. The New York Film Festival Press Conferences
As a festival programmer, part of my job is to moderate Q&A's with attending talent after film screenings. This is always a dicey proposition; You never know what type of question is going to be asked and what type of tap-dancing you'll have to undertake to keep things respectable. I have, however, never had the luxury of moderating a Q&A for an industry-only audience. You would assume that when fielding questions from a room full of professionals, the level of discourse would increase. You would be wrong. Each and every year, the post-screening Press Conferences at the New York Film Festival dazzle and inspire, sometimes in a great way (John Landis' hilarious press conference for Mr. Warmth this year, the incredibly verbose Warren Beatty fielding two questions in 45 minutes after last year's Reds screening) and sometimes, for all of the wrong reasons.
This year's batch of NYFF Press Conferences featured a couple of golden moments that literally made my skin crawl. I have to admit, I secretly love the pain of these moments; They hurt so good. First, it is important to remember that most of the people who attend the Press Screenings at the NYFF are actually paid to be there; These are primarily media professionals who use these screenings to get an advance look at the films they will be writing about in the coming weeks. There are also some major donors to the Film Society who get to escape the crowds and lines at the public screenings and attend the Press screenings. Fair enough; You give enough money, you can operate the projector for all I care. I can't vouch for the identity of the following two questioners, but it's exchanges like these that keep me coming back year after year. Brilliant.
I should say, the following moments are inexact summaries of actual exchanges, but they're very close to verbtim. I wish I were kidding.
Moment #1: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly Press Conference, Walter Reade Theater
The ever-prickly Julian Schnabel ascends the stage in his pajamas. As Richard Peña dives in with an opening question, Schnabel tells Peña to "relax" and to let him have a glass of water first. The audience sits in silence as Schnabel unscrews the cap on his water bottle, pours the water into a glass, mutters something into the mic, takes a big drink of water and graciously (cough) allows the Press Conference to begin.
Peña: You sir, in the back.
Man: Yes, I had a question for the Director. Why did you keep showing the women reading the alphabet to Jean-Dominique? I don't understand why he kept blinking and then they would start over reading the alphabet every time. That didn't seem to make much sense.
Schnabel: Ummmm... That is how he communicated. When they arrived at the letter he wanted, he would blink to indicate the letter of his choice. Did you not get that?
Man: Wait a minute, then how did he write the book?
Schnabel: I think I must have failed in some way if it wasn't clear to you that he was communicating by blinking--
Man: Hold on... You're telling me that this guy wrote a whole book by blinking his eye? While they read him the alphabet?
Schnabel : Yes.
(Stunned silence for a good 30 seconds as the implications of the fact that somehow, somewhere, this man was cashing some sort of paycheck slowly became manifest in the room.)
Moment #2: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead Press Conference, Walter Reade Theater
Woman: A question, Mr. Lumet.
Sidney Lumet: Yes...
Woman: I noticed that when Phil Hoffman was trashing his apartment after his wife left him, he took the bowl of rocks on his coffee table and dumped it out. When he did that, the camera clearly focuses in on two crystals, a purple crystal and a white crystal. Were you trying to make some point about Mr. Hoffman's character's spirituality with these crystals?
Lumet: No, the Production Designer put a bowl of rocks on the coffee table and I asked Philip to turn over the bowl, which he did.
We could go on for hours... you get the idea. Whew. Amazing.
7. No End In Sight At Sundance and Film Forum
One of the most powerful cinematic experiences I had all year, the moment that really brought the U.S. Occupation of Iraq home for me, was at my second screening of Charles Ferguson's No End In Sight in early August at Film Forum. I had seen the film at Sundance back in January and was completely blown away and outraged by the precision of Ferguson's (as I said at the time) "point by point disemboweling of the Bush Administration’s handling of the war in Iraq." When I took my sister to see the film some eight months later, nothing at all had changed. The movie was, if anything, more relevant than it was eight months prior. Nothing outlines the stasis of our times for me like the realization that in eight months, one of the most timely and pressing movies I saw in January had become more timely and more pressing. A whole year later, now, and I know that the stories and lessons on display in No End In Sight are still relevant to our current policies and decisions overseas; I find this terribly depressing and so outrageous, it almost paralyzes me.
6. My Own Private Idaho at the Cinematheque Francaise
On our first night in Paris, the Mrs. humored me and we sprinted off to the Cinematheque Francaise for a screening of Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. Needless to say, the movie itself mattered less than being in the hallowed halls of the Cinematheque. It was an amazing experience; the first and only time I've been to Paris after so many years of seeing the city on film. Obviously, Henri Langlois is a hero to every film programmer in the world (or he should be), and so to see a film in the institution he worked so hard to build was a true honor. Curiously, I also found a small relic of his past, buried under some graffiti; The entrance to the now-destroyed Musée du Cinema, a ghostly reminder of Langlois' genius.
5. Silent Light at the New York Film Festival
I loved this movie. What I loved most about it, and this screening in particular, is the way in which slowly, one by one, all of my preconceptions were turned on their heads; Maybe I was expecting Reygadas to echo Japón or Battle In Heaven (which I have always liked), but Silent Light was the only movie I saw all year which felt literally other-worldly. Much has been made of the film's Macintosh Screensaver opening and closing sequences which, whatever their origins, provided an absolutely perfect set of bookends for the existential sexual crisis at the film's heart. I also saw the film having been married for about one month, so maybe I took some perverse pleasure in my empathetic response to the characters and their situation. No matter; Here was a movie about magic, love and resurrection that struck a chord in my atheist's heart.
"The film, which is in the medieval German Plautdietsch dialect, has been discussed in spiritual terms, probably because it features a faithful family at its core, but I didn't find anything remotely spiritual about it; The movie is absolutely carnal, deeply connected to the majesty and beauty of the knowable, physical world."
No small feat. This one is destined to be a favorite for a long time to come.
4. Killer of Sheep at The IFC Center
Somehow, some way, my summer screening of Charles Burnett's amazing Killer Of Sheep was my first-ever visit to the IFC Center. Yes, the facility was terrific, but even after all of anticipation I felt prior to this screening, nothing could prepare me for the film itself; I have no doubt that Killer of Sheep is an absolute masterpiece, as phenomenal and dynamic a movie as I have ever seen. As I wrote when I saw it:
"When Stan and his wife, wrapped in the shadow of a dirty window, slowly dance to Dinah Washington's performance of The Bitter Earth, her hands digging into his shirtless back, her sexual desire unfulfilled and her knowledge of the unbending reality of her situation as a wife and woman; This moment was transformative for me. As cinematic a definition of longing and regret as you are likely to ever see."
I still haven't been able to shake this movie, one that will probably stand alongside Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and Manhattan as my favorite films of the 1970's. Sometimes the order in which you discover things makes a huge difference; Something about finding Killer of Sheep in 2007 seemed like perfect timing for me. I was ready for it, and it still knocked me out.
3. The Echo Chamber
2007 was the year that I finally established a deep connection to the internet as my primary source of cinematic community. I spent some time every day, literally every day, checking blogs, clicking links and reading what my fellow writers think about movies. I left comments (sometimes to my own detriment) and read comment sections (which often provided the most entertaining reading of all), I set up RSS Feeds, e-mailed some writers I liked and finally realized that there are a few people other than my mom who actually read this blog. For the first time ever, I felt like I was a part of an actual living, breathing community of people who give a damn about cinema, people who write about their cinematic passions and engage one another in a lively, never-ending discussion of movies.
For a guy who spent his teenage years in near-isolation while renting movies from a video store and his college years haunting half-empty art house theaters, this is no small thing at all. Couple it with the fact that I live in one of three or four places in America that provides safe harbor to people like me, people who love the diversity of cinema, and I feel very lucky to be alive in this time and even more lucky to have the opportunity afforded by this blog to plug into the world around me.
Which is why I get so annoyed reading so many criticisms of the blogs I admire as "insular echo chambers", of film criticism as "irrelevant", and of people who blow off cinephiles as being out of touch and "elitist". If anything, the opposite is true; All of the bloggers I admire discuss a wide range of film, and the films many of them get passionate about are the films that no one else is talking about at all. Bloggers are engaged in a new, unique critical function-- a living, breathing dialogue that unfolds in real time, where opinions bend and are clarified, movies are championed and re-examined, and people form communities around the larger conversation.
I read a lot of on-line film writing, but I also invariably make up my own mind about every single film I see. To accuse bloggers and writers of participating in "group think" is a gross oversimplification; This is an active community of individuals who go to films and write about them in order to participate in a conversation that matters to us. We write and discuss not because we want to agree and be included, but because the community will tolerate all different types of thinking; Even our biggest naysayers are included in the discussion, whether they like it or not. So, I would like to declare 2008 the end of the echo chamber. Instead, may the new year continue to foster conversation among any who care to join in the discussion.
2. Generation D.I.Y. And The Backlash
This year, I was proud to host a large, diverse group of young filmmakers at The Sarasota Film Festival; Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig (Hannah Takes The Stairs), Ry Russo-Young (Orphans), Craig Zobel (Great World Of Sound), Zack Godshall and Barlow Jacobs (Low And Behold), Nate Meyer (Pretty In The Face) and Aaron Katz (Quiet City) all made the trip to the festival to share their work with an appreciative audience. It felt special having them (and everyone else) here and as someone who enjoyed all of their films, I was proud and excited to have been able to showcase the work of these filmmakers. Obviously, we weren't alone; After premiering at SXSW, IFC Films acquired Hannah and the good folks at the IFC Center built a two-week program around many of these films (among others) called The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y. Suddenly, the internet was ablaze with a critical examination of the films, the moment and what it all meant. And then, all hell broke loose.
Exhibit A: Amy Taubin, who took each filmmaker on his own terms and, in her cruel, personal attack on Joe Swanberg, galvanized the debate about the movies and the people that make them. I don't agree with Amy Taubin, but I certainly defend her right to say whatever the fuck she wants about any movie she wants. I also think her defensiveness about the reaction to her brutal piece is a bit disingenuous. Take, for example, her attack on Jeff Reichert 's and Eugene Hernandez's professionalism regarding the row over indieWIRE's Southland Tales review:
"Given that the editor of Indiewire recently questioned my "Film Comment" article on "mumblecore" for being too "personal," by which I can only imagine that he meant he felt "personally" attacked for his involvement in hyping a non-existent movement, I now must wonder if he also misunderstands the meaning of professionalism. For the record, I think "Southland Tales" is a terrific movie, and there's nothing personal about this critical assessment except that it is written by a thinking, feeling human being, who also has no professional conflict of interest in the matter. Yrs., amy taubin"
See, that's kind of bullshit: You can call Joe Swanberg a "lout", a "loud mouth" who "deep throat(s) his own foot," a man whose world view is "reason enough to bring back the draft" and whose films are "smug" and "blatantly lazy" , whose "greatest talent is for getting attractive, seemingly intelligent women to drop their clothes and evince sexual interest", but to then pretend it isn't personal, and on top of it to feign victimization at the hands of those who call bullshit on the attack, well, get serious. Like I said, I defend Amy Taubin's right to say whatever the fuck she wants to say, but she should at least have the courage to stand by her statements without pretending she's been misunderstood. Anyway. I have never been one to categorize films into movements or groups; Every movie stands on its own merits in my mind. But it was hard not to get roped into the discussion about these films once the conversation got started. My post about the films, written on the eve of the IFC Center's series, is the one post I wrote this year of which I am the most proud. Whatever you feel about the hype or the publicity, here's hoping that people took the time to see the films and make up their own minds.
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days at The New York Film Festival
The best film I saw in a movie theater all year long was Cristi Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days. I wrote about the film back in October, but the film has really stayed with me, probably because I am thinking of starting my own family, thinking of the deeply personal decisions involved in the choice to become a parent. This movie is pure terror, absolute anxiety. As I wrote when I saw it:
"As the right to choose an abortion is continually evaluated in the political context of a world where feminism's hard-won victories seem commonplace, the film provides a painful reminder of the indignities suffered when politics and morality are imposed on the private decisions of individuals. Gabita's decision to not become a mother, as late as it arrives in the process, is as difficult and painful a choice as could be made, but it is Otilia's experience, that of a woman forced into the role of a criminal for facilitating that choice, that allows the film to escape the clichés of a cautionary tale and transcend as great drama."
No sequence in a film this year has haunted me like Otilla's search for a dumpster on the mean streets of Bucharest, a galvanizing moment that perfectly locates the social responsibility inherent in the freedom of choice. As a man who is thinking of starting a family of his own, the fundamental necessity of that choice is more resonant to me than ever.
(Note: I haven't yet seen There Will Be Blood and I didn’t count 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' one week black-boxing in Los Angeles as its theatrical run; That film will certainly be on my Best of 2008 list).
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Away From Her
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
I'm Not There
Into Great Silence
Killer Of Sheep
Lake Of Fire
No Country For Old Men
No End In Sight